The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 98 (December 1999): 68-88.

Liberalism Without a Left, Conservatism Without Delusions

In the view of conservatives, liberals are in the saddle. In the view of liberals, conservatives are in the saddle, or at least threaten to take things over. There is no "us" without a "them," and it’s hard to ginger up passion for our cause without believing that theirs is winning. So has it always been, and so, until Our Lord returns in glory, will it probably always be. Inveighing into this endless discussion comes social historian Russell Jacoby with a passionate new book, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy (Basic Books, $26). His claim is that, without a utopian vision, liberalism perishes. Or as he puts it, "A left constituted the liberal backbone; as the left vaporized, the backbone went soft."

In the last decade, the collapse of communism and the stagnation of "social democracy" in Europe have deprived the left of any credible proposal for radical change. Even modest programs of redistributionism have been abandoned as intellectuals on the left have wasted their energies in promoting multiculturalist distractions, obscurantist cultural studies that have turned the academy into a narcissistic playpen, and communitarian platitudes that claim to bridge the divide between left and right. According to Jacoby, liberal theorists such as Richard Rorty and Charles Taylor have embraced a relativism that denies to the claims of justice any public purchase. (Although his call for a new left is in important respects similar to Rorty’s plea in Achieving Our Country. See Public Square, March 1999.) Jacoby’s conclusion is that without a real left that promotes a combination of high culture, radically democratic politics, and economic equality, liberalism is dead.

Andrew Sullivan is having none of it. Liberalism, he believes, has greatly benefited by the end of the utopian romanticism espoused by Jacoby. He asks, "Is it not truer, in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, that it is the abandonment of utopia that makes liberalism possible?" Liberalism, Sullivan says, is concern for pluralism, fairness, and freedom. "For all the talk of the end of ideology, there are still plenty of causes." He offers this list of causes, on which I comment in brackets. "There is genocide again in Europe [No there isn’t, unless one debases the term to mean perennial ethnic and religious conflicts]; there is economic inequality at home [There always will be; the question is whether there is greater economic opportunity]; civil rights are not assured for all Americans [Sullivan’s particular campaign is for same–sex marriage]; civil liberties have had a terrible decade [I’m not sure what he means; perhaps new and intrusive antiterrorist laws in the Clinton era]; the racial question remains and festers [Undoubtedly true, although it is currently festering below fever level]."

I expect that Jacoby would say that Sullivan’s very moderate liberalism pretty much fits what he calls "an age of apathy." The striking thing about this dispute between two articulate liberals is the very abstract level at which it is conducted. It is far removed from the on–the–ground political reality where conservatives have no difficulty at all in defining their cause in terms of conflicts over very specific policies. For a few examples: the protection of the unborn, the handicapped, and the dying; parental choice in education; tax and other policies supportive of marriage and the family; the defense of individual merit against quotas and related discriminations; the defense of property, civil, and religious rights against expansivist government control; and the vigorous affirmation of the achievements of Western culture, in opposition to multiculturalist fashions.

In the political and cultural worlds generally defined as conservative, there is no dispute comparable to that among theorists such as Sullivan, Jacoby, Rorty, and Taylor. Of course, they might say that is because conservatism is the stupid party and incapable of the big ideas necessary to fuel such disputes. And it is true that, except for a few libertarians, conservatives have no utopias to propose. In the spirit of Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott (incidentally, a mentor of Sullivan’s who sometimes appears to be incidental to him), conservatives have quite enough to do in coping with the assaults upon decency, justice, and common sense perpetrated by those who call themselves liberals. Liberals in the saddle can indulge in abstract disputes about the nature of the ideology that legitimizes their rule. The fact that liberals are in the saddle, on the other hand, provides a sufficient working definition of conservatism. Which means, of course, that conservatism is reactive, but not nearly so reactionary as the utopian leftisms that have been posited against almost everything in the world as it is.

Utopianisms—from Lenin to Mao, and with many lesser imitators in between—have been the bloody bane of the century past. Jacoby’s liberalism with a radical left backbone is incremental utopianism. Sullivan is right in saying that we are well rid of it—although, given the human propensity for grand delusions, utopianism will almost certainly reappear in different guise. Apart from his sexuality project, Sullivan is more accurately described as a conservative, albeit something of a closet conservative. Working as he does for the New Republic and the New York Times, he knows what is required to keep his place in the saddle.

Hope at the Heart of Horror

Theodicy—how to justify the ways of God to man—is an old intellectual chess game that goes on and on. An interesting replay is Richard Swinburne’s new book, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford University Press). Swinburne is professor of the philosophy of religion at Oxford and, like innumerable writers before him, he begins with the conundrum that, in view of the reality of evil, God is either not omnipotent or not good. The alternative conclusion, of course, is that there is no God. Swinburne sets out to defend God’s omnipotence and goodness (although he is weak on God’s omniscience) by arguing that the evil in the world is necessary to the measure of good in the world, with good finally winning out over evil. Along the way, he poses fascinating thought experiments that will delight those interested in intellectual gambits. Very neatly done, for instance, is his argument that we would be less fully alive in a world in which there is only 10 percent of the evil that there is in the world as it is.

His line of reasoning is very close to that of Leibniz, that this is "the best of all possible worlds," except he agrees with Aquinas that God could have made other and different things, which would have resulted in a different and better world. The gist of the argument is Leibnizian, however, and, of its kind, it is very nicely executed. Its kind, however, is terribly bloodless. In the vortex of life as lived, it does not stand up to the experienced reality of, for instance, the Holocaust, or Stalin’s starvation of the Ukraine, or the death of a ten–year–old daughter by leukemia. In one way, this is not Swinburne’s fault. The fault is with the bloodless, syllogistic way in which the theodicy question is conventionally posed. It begins with a rationalistic assumption about the attributes of God—as though we know what omnipotence and goodness mean—and then we put that concept of God to the test of our experience of evil. Uncritically accepting that definition of the theodicy question, Swinburne gives worthy battle. But the God in question is the God of certain philosophers, not the God of history and revelation; certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and most certainly not the crucified God incarnate.

To old–fashioned rationalists, whether skeptics or atheists, one can warmly recommend Providence and the Problem of Evil. The more honest among them will recognize that they are checked, if not checkmated, by Swinburne’s intellectual moves. But the great question of whether we can believe that God is both good and omnipotent is left at the level of a chess game, and reasonable people may think the game results in a draw. As I contend in a forthcoming book, Death on a Friday Afternoon, this falls far short of an encounter with the God of Israel who accepts defeat by our definition of the game in order to expose the error of our definition. It not only falls short; it is almost beside the point. Almost, but not quite. Swinburne scores important, and sometimes decisive, points in a theodicy argument wrongly framed. His book can serve the useful purpose of encouraging people to set that argument aside in order to move on to the mystery of cross and resurrection that are at the heart of the Christian reason for hope in the midst of the horror.

Proposing Democracy Anew—Part Three

In the first two parts of this reflection on the democratic prospect in the twenty–first century, I set forth seven of ten propositions—readily admitting that they could be subdivided or combined into more or less than ten. The first seven are: 1) The sovereignty of the democratic state is accountable to a higher sovereignty. 2) In a democratic society, we live under several and sometimes conflicting sovereignties. 3) The problems of democracy are inherent in democracy. 4) Democracy is and always will be unsatisfactory. 5) Democracy requires more than democratic institutions. 6) Democracy is more than majority rule. 7) Democracy presupposes that the legitimacy of positive law depends upon its compatibility with moral law.

Implicit in all that has been said so far, but perhaps needing to be said explicitly, is the understanding that the democratic state is necessarily a limited state. As we have seen, it is substantively limited by the acknowledgment of a higher sovereignty, and it is procedurally limited by the just claims of communities other than the state and by their role in the right ordering of society. The discernment and teaching of the moral law, for instance, is primarily the task of institutions such as the family and the church. In articulating that law, the role of the state is responsive rather than generative. The state is not a source of morality. More precisely, the state has no morality except the moral duty, legally defined, to give effect to the judgment of the people as expressed through the institutions of representative democracy.

Family, church, voluntary associations of all kinds—these are what I have frequently referred to as the "mediating institutions" of society (see To Empower People: From State to Civil Society, AEI Press, 1996). The mediating institutions stand between the autonomous individual and the "megastructures" of society, beginning with the state but including also corporate structures and others. The idea of "mediating institutions" is closely related to the Catholic doctrine of "subsidiarity." In my experience, that doctrine is little understood, even by Catholics. Too many have got it exactly backwards. They think it means the parceling out or "devolution" of state power to other institutions of society, rather than the inherent location of such powers and functions in what Centesimus Annus calls "the subjectivity of society." The doctrine of subsidiarity and the idea of mediating institutions mean that the proper subject of social decisions is the person and persons in community. Persons, individually and in free association with others, should make the decisions on matters most closely affecting them. This is the gist of the argument for "civil society" that has received so much attention in recent years.

In Response to Critics

Some conservative critics of the mediating institutions argument, I should note as an aside, complain that it, too, falls into the ideologically liberal trap of defining society in terms of only two entities, the state and the solitary individual, with mediating institutions being a fragile buffer between them. The complaint is based, I believe, on a misunderstanding. While the state is the chief "megastructure," it is joined by corporations, professional associations, organized labor, and a host of others. (Smaller people–to–people–sized businesses and labor unions, for instance, can also be more in the nature of mediating institutions.) More important, the complaint assumes that the argument understands the individual in terms of liberalism’s "autonomous self." That is not the case. By individual I mean the "acting person" (Karol Wojtyla) who also receives an identity that is mediated through communities that are inseparable from that continuing identity. In the Christian understanding, this happens at the deepest level by incorporation into the community of grace that is the Church.

Here, too, a clarification is in order with respect to the seventh proposal and touching on the megastructure that is the state. Evangelium Vitae accents the conflict between positive law and moral law on questions such as abortion, euthanasia, and the protection of those who cannot protect themselves. Those of us who champion laws for the protection of the unborn are accused of violating our own principles by wanting to expand the sphere of state power. Nothing could be further from the truth. The protection of innocent human life is the first responsibility of the limited state, and abortion is inescapably a public question. Again it is necessary to emphasize that the abortion debate is not over private opinions about when human life begins. That is not a moral or political question, nor is it a matter of private opinion. The question of when human life begins is indisputably and very publicly settled by science. The question of which human lives belong to the community that is protected by law is inescapably a political question. If politics is about how we ought to order our lives together, then abortion is the unavoidable political question of who belongs to the "we." It is not a private question but the most public of questions, namely, Whom do we include, and whom do we exclude, from the polis?

My eighth proposition: The separation of church and state does not mean and cannot mean the separation of religion from public life. That proposition is, of course, at the heart of this journal’s reason for being. Critics of the Supreme Court’s decisions on church–state questions routinely point out that "the separation of church and state" is not in the Constitution. That is certainly true, but the phrase has, for better and for worse, achieved a quasi–constitutional status. In recent years there are encouraging signs that the Court is moving away from extreme separationism to a doctrine of "equal regard," meaning that institutions and practices cannot be discriminated against simply because they are religious in nature. Yet there is no doubt that the separationist doctrine as applied by the courts in the last half of the twentieth century contributed powerfully to creating a naked public square.

Naked, Sacred, Civil

It bears repeating here that the alternative to the naked public square is not the sacred public square but the civil public square. We should not want a confessional state. The state should not confess a faith. It does that, however, when, in hostility to the faith confessed by its people, it confesses the ersatz religion of militant secularism. The great antidemocratic danger, contrary to much popular punditry, comes not from the free exercise of religion but from the secularist creeds imposed by governments that recognize no higher sovereignty. That was the reality of Nazism and communism. That danger is also present in our democracies when "the separation of church and state" is taken to mean the separation of religion from public life. The public square, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If it is not filled with the lively expression of the most deeply held convictions of the people, including their convictions grounded in religion, it will be filled by the quasi–religious beliefs of secularism.

One may well ask whether the religious situation of "Christian America" is capable of informing democratic deliberation and decision by reference to religion and religiously grounded moral discernment. My argument is that our society is aptly described as Christian—incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly Christian. Christians who say that America is post–Christian are, more often than not, motivated by an understandable desire to escape the embarrassment that is this Christian society. The Christianity of Christian America is in many ways attenuated and degenerate, but it is attenuated and degenerate Christianity. Recall T. S. Eliot’s observation that a society that was Christian still is Christian until its Christianity has been replaced by a positively defined something else.

Although there are many contenders to replace Christianity in providing a comprehensive understanding of reality and a source of moral discernment, it has not been replaced. Christianity has been buffeted, battered, distorted, and exploited for innumerable purposes, but it has not been replaced. Once again, 90 percent of the American people say they are Christian. It is difficult to imagine the circumstance in which they would say they are anything else with the same implied commitment. Of course, they identify themselves as American, but that changes little since what they mean by American is inextricably entangled with being Christian. Such is the typically American "God and country" packaging of identity that always threatens to drift into a civil religion that is in tension, if not conflict, with biblical religion.

To be sure, in speaking about Christian America in this way, we are speaking more sociologically than theologically. No claim is made that the religion under discussion is "authentic," however that may be defined. Paul J. Griffiths of the University of Chicago has written interestingly about what constitutes an authentically religious account of reality. Whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, or some other religion, says Griffiths, an authentic religious account has three characteristics: it is comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central. That is to say, authentic religion provides a complete account of reality, it bespeaks an ultimate allegiance that is not in the service of any other allegiance, and it is the controlling core of one’s existence. Perhaps most Christians would like to think that that pretty much describes what they mean when they say they are Christians.

Claiming to Know Too Much

Sociologists of religion in America, however, tell us that religion for most Americans is not comprehensive, unsurpassable, and central. It is, they say, fragmented, instrumental, and marginal. By that they mean that religion typically provides an account not of everything but of the segments of reality demarcated as "religion," "spirituality," and, more ambivalently, "morality." In fact, they say, what we find in America is religion that is typically not unsurpassable but instrumental, being in the service of "meeting the needs" of the unsurpassable self. And, far from being central, it is typically marginal. The conclusion follows that the religion of "Christian America" is inauthentically religious.

Sociological data and theory are not uninteresting, but scholars who draw that conclusion are claiming to know ever so much more than they can possibly know. In theological and commonsensical fact, only God knows what all is involved in what people say and think and do religiously. Most people are religiously inarticulate, as they are inarticulate about most things that matter, with the result that their banalities may sometimes disguise a depth of meaning and experience that would greatly surprise us. We should be open to the possibility that someone employing the conventional patter about religion "meeting my needs" has a spiritual life worthy of a John of the Cross or a Teresa of Ávila. The conventional patter is simply the culturally available vocabulary. In any event, however much popular piety may be viewed condescendingly by theologians and debunked by social scientists, it is for purposes of social order the source of moral sentiment and judgment. That is the reality, admittedly a deeply confused reality, of Christian America—and it will remain that deeply confused reality until it is replaced by something that is positively something else.

To separate government from the reality of religion—from that which speaks to the deepest and highest and most commanding ways of understanding what is really real—is to separate government from the people who are the source of its legitimacy. Nonetheless, the separation of church and state, rightly understood, is good for both government and church. While we must insist that government be favorably disposed toward religion, we should not want an established religion. In the 1986 "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation," Josef Cardinal Ratzinger declared, "God wishes to be adored by people who are free." Coerced faith is no faith, and coercion of religious belief is deeply contradictory to the spirit of the gospel, as adumbrated in Vatican II’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae. In the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II wrote that "the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing." The Church’s public proposal is well served by the separation of church and state, rightly understood.

The separation of church and state, it must be emphasized, is a limit set on government, not on religion. The free exercise of religion allows a religious community to democratically agitate for its legal establishment and for a confessional state. I believe such a goal is wrongheaded, and it is clearly contrary to Catholic teaching, as the above citations illustrate. Nevertheless, the free exercise of religion means that religion is permitted to promote also dumb ideas. It is the modern state, with its insatiable ambition to power, that is limited by the separation of church and state. By that separation, the state acknowledges its incompetence in the most important areas of life, and most particularly with respect to the ultimate questions addressed by religion. The state’s systematic confession of its incompetence opens public space for the democratic politics of persuasion and consent rather than the politics of coercion.

What Is Meant by Pluralism

My ninth proposition is this: Pluralism is written into the script of history. I take that phrase from Father John Courtney Murray, who had such a significant impact upon the Council’s deliberations about religious liberty. I would take the proposition somewhat farther than Fr. Murray, however, and note that it is God who has done the writing. Pluralism—meaning that we live together with people who inhabit different worlds of meaning—would seem to be the permanent human condition. Indeed, as Samuel Huntington of Harvard has written, the "clash of civilizations" in the new millennium likely means that pluralism will be more pronounced in the future. This raises important questions about the unity of the human destiny and about the Church’s task of evangelization. I will not go into those questions here, but simply suggest that they are admirably addressed in the above–mentioned Redemptoris Missio.

Genuine pluralism is not simply the sociological fact of a plurality of worlds of meaning; it is a social and cultural achievement. Frequently people appeal to pluralism when making the argument that religion should be separated from public life. The naked public square is necessary, they say, "because we live in a pluralistic society." This is a deeply mischievous misunderstanding of pluralism. Pluralism is not pretending that our deepest differences make no difference. Pluralism, rather, is engaging those differences within the bond of civility. Pluralism requires mutual respect for persons, not indifference to truth. One can even agree with the maxim found in popular Catholic teaching of an earlier time that "error has no rights." But errors are attached to people, and people do have rights. Only through the persuasive proposal of the truth can people freely detach themselves from their errors.

Does this mean tolerance is a Christian virtue? The appeal to tolerance, many are inclined to think, is the last resort of the scoundrel. No doubt scoundrels take advantage of tolerance, and we earlier discussed devious uses of what Herbert Marcuse dubbed "repressive tolerance." Yet I would insist that tolerance is a Christian virtue. Tolerance, however, is not indifference; it is not simply "putting up with" those with whom we disagree. It is genuine respect for the other, even when we cannot respect what they do or say. Secularists routinely claim that religion is a threat to tolerance, and there is no lack of historical evidence for that claim. But we now must more vigorously make the case that religion is the most solid foundation for tolerance. Recall the observation that we do not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God because we agree that it is the will of God that we not kill one another over our disagreements about the will of God. This is agreement in the truth that this is the will of God. Social and historical circumstances have led us to recognize that truth, but we recognize it because it is the truth. Again, it is John Paul II who so powerfully argued, especially in Centesimus Annus, that it is not agnosticism that secures a free and just society but a religiously informed respect for the person and the person in community.

The Normality of Conflict

Then to my tenth and final proposition: Democratic deliberation and decision–making is necessarily conflictual. In thinking about the century and centuries ahead, we may and should hope for what Pope Paul VI called "the civilization of love," but the civilization of love is not the civilization of unanimity. Short of the End Time, even among people of the best will (and it will never be that everybody will be of the best will), there will be different and frequently conflicting understandings of moral truth and the common good—and, increasingly, there is disagreement over what might be meant by words such as "truth" and "good." Such conflict need not be lethal or self–destructive if several conditions are maintained.

First, the sovereignty of the state and the sphere of politics must be carefully circumscribed. Samuel Johnson wisely observed, "How small the part of all that human hearts endure can laws or kings either cause or cure." In fact, laws and kings—and democratic governments as well!—can cause a great deal of human unhappiness, typically by overestimating the measure of human unhappiness that they can cure. The deepest and most important things over which people find themselves in conflict should, as much as possible, be beyond the scope of the state. This truth is closely tied, of course, to the doctrine of subsidiarity and the revitalization of "mediating institutions," as discussed above.

Second, conflict is not destructive if the political process is open to citizens of all convictions, and there are neither penalties nor rewards based on religious conviction or the lack thereof. The public square must always be open to all—at least in theory that is supported by determined effort. Despite the argument of some theorists, total openness and unimpeded communication are not possible. Some will be excluded by mental disability, others will exclude themselves by, for example, criminal actions. Even when assailed by violence and corrupted by bad faith—in fact, especially then—the commitment to the civil public square is to be sustained. It can be sustained by an awareness that God calls us to care for the earthly polis, and by the knowledge that opponents have access to truth and a capacity for reason even when they seem determined to prove that they don’t. And again, it helps to know that the most important things to be communicated and agreed upon are not in the realm of politics.

Third, the Church must acknowledge the limits of its competence in political and economic life. In relation to politics it strives to maintain a principled, firm, and nonpartisan stance. Admittedly, that is not easy. In specific circumstances of partisan conflict, even the most carefully crafted statement of principle will be viewed by some as partisan. Therefore, a good rule of thumb when it comes to statements that intend to invoke the Church’s moral authority is this: When it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak. At stake is the danger of turning the gospel into an ideology or party platform. Politics is not the vocation of the Church. The Church is to help equip the faithful for the exercise of their vocations in the public square. The vocation of the Church is to help sustain many different vocations.

Arguments that Are Public

Fourth, religious people, and religious leaders in particular, must, when they enter the public square, make genuinely public moral arguments. That is to say, they must, as much as possible, frame their arguments in a public vocabulary that is as accessible to as many people as possible, and must exercise a disciplined restraint in appealing explicitly to religious authority. What the Bible says or what the Church’s Magisterium says should inspire and inform our public argument, but it is not a genuinely public argument to tell others that we should do something because it is the teaching of the Bible or the Magisterium. In framing arguments that are truly public and not limited to Christians, we have, of course, a powerful resource in varieties of natural law traditions.

That fourth condition requires two caveats. We might ask: In a society where everybody, or at least a politically effective majority, accepts the authority of the Bible, why shouldn’t we be able to appeal explicitly to biblical teaching in political disputes? The answer is that we are free to do so, of course, but it would make the public square captive to the endless disagreements over interpreting the Bible that have already so sadly divided the churches. The wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries devastated the social and political fabric of Europe, and nobody should want to flirt with a repeat of that tragic experience. The situation might be very different if or when the wounds of a divided Christianity are healed. That happy prospect, however, appears to be a long way off.

The question of divided Christianity touches on our understanding of the Church, or ecclesiology, as it is called. Here enters the second caveat about the rule that public arguments be made in a way that is publicly accessible. Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist theologian at Duke University, is often quoted: "The Church does not have a social ethic. The Church is a social ethic." I entirely agree with what I take to be intended by that formula. The greatest public contribution of the Church is for the Church to be the Church—fully and unapologetically. If the Christian people were more fully living together the faith that they profess, they would also, individually and corporately, be more effective in the public square.

A difficulty with the Hauerwasian position, however, is in locating this church that is to stand in countercultural challenge to the surrounding society when the great majority of people in the surrounding society think they belong to the church. Perhaps they are simply to be told that they are wrong about that. But the prospect of mass excommunication would seem to require some careful theological reflection. A good many Christians—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, liberal and conservative—appear to have few theological inhibitions about assuming that most other Christians are not really Christian. Whether by criteria of political correctness, doctrinal orthodoxy, ecclesial connection, or moral rectitude, most Christians are assumed to be excommunicate. Thinking that way makes it much easier to believe that America is a post–Christian society, which relieves us of the burden and embarrassment of a society that is—incorrigibly, confusedly, and conflictedly—Christian America. Thinking that way is, I believe, theologically untenable, sociologically contrary to fact, and morally unseemly.

"Steady Work"

I have offered, then, ten propositions regarding church, state, and democracy in the twenty–first century. We should be able to understand why many Christians are suspicious of the liberal democratic idea. They associate it with a liberalism that is purely "procedural," that prescinds from moral tradition or judgment. Or they associate liberalism with the doctrine of the Imperial Self, in which there is only government on the one hand and, on the other, the autonomous, atomistic individual. Or they associate liberalism with a brand of libertarianism premised upon a laissez–faire doctrine of the survival of the fittest. These versions of liberalism were rightly condemned by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century.

Throughout the course of modernity, the vocabulary of liberalism has been promiscuous in its couplings with strange doctrines. But liberal democracy would seem to be the likely future. If it is liberal democracy along the lines proposed here, it is worthy of support. It is not the last word; it is not Fukuyama’s "end of history"; I’m not sure it’s even, in Churchill’s phrase, the least bad of all the systems of government that have been tried. But at the beginning of the twenty–first century, it’s better than anything else on offer. That may not seem like much, but, as at the beginning of the first millennium so also at the beginning of the third, alien citizens know not to expect too much from the earthly city.

It has only to be added that no existing government, including the American experiment in democratic government by republican means, adequately exemplifies the government described in these three essays. Probably none ever will. That does not mean we have been describing an impossible, and therefore irrelevant, ideal. Rather, this is proposed as a model, firmly grounded in a Christian understanding of anthropology, ethics, and historical possibility. Some political experiments will approximate it more adequately than others. Approximation is the continuing task, and when we grow weary and are tempted to despair, recall the fellow in the Eastern European shtetl whose job was to look out for the coming of the Messiah. With his family and other responsibilities, he told the elders, he needed a raise. "The shtetl can’t afford a raise," they replied, "but look at it this way: It’s steady work."

Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn, 1909–1999

I was going to write something about Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn, but then Michael Aeschliman of Boston University submitted the following about our friend, which says what needs to be said better than I could.

It was a great privilege to have known the Austrian historian Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn, who died peacefully last spring at his home in the Austrian Tyrol at the age of ninety. Erik and his wife, longtime anti–Communists and anti–Nazis, were in exile in the United States from 1938 (the year of the Nazi annexation of Austria) until 1946, when they returned to their native country. Nearly every year afterward, Erik lectured in America. He also traveled widely throughout the rest of the world. (Fluent in eight languages, with a reading knowledge of another ten, he was the most astonishingly gifted linguist I have ever known.) At the age of twenty Erik served as a special correspondent in Russia for a Hungarian daily paper; from that time forward he pursued a unique career as a journalist, historian, lecturer, traveler, novelist, and painter. It is to the great credit of William F. Buckley, Jr. that he had the insight to appoint Erik as a regular writer for National Review. His "From the Continent" column was both learned and topical, and attracted the attention of such luminaries as Jacques Barzun. In addition to many books in German (with translations into several other languages), Erik wrote two volumes in English that are a great help in understanding the history of the last two centuries: Liberty or Equality (1952; revised edition 1993) and Leftism Revisited (1953; revised edition 1990). These works combine detailed political and intellectual history with sociology, philosophy, and theology in a way that is a standing reproach to the esotericism and neophilia of American academic publishing.

Erik disliked specialization; throughout his long life he worked against it by assembling and deploying vast, coordinated learning. He tried to see life steadily and see it whole. Witness to the collapse of an empire and the rise and fall of two brutal totalitarianisms, he was at the vortex of world–historical events; in part because of what he had observed, he could never credit the nostrums by which so much of modern opinion is sustained. As a consequence, he was often a lonely witness against the "treason of the intellectuals."

Politically and religiously Erik was just as comprehensive, and just as rigorous. He was a Catholic aristocrat who never lost his loyalty to the Hapsburg family and the empire it ruled for so long, an empire whose destruction in 1919 unleashed a nightmare in Central Europe. He defended the conservative liberalism of Burke, Tocqueville, Montalembert, Burckhardt, Acton, and the American Founders (whom he helped introduce to the German–speaking world). He argued doggedly against "democratism," the idea that majorities are always right, because he believed that democracy was the characteristically modern form of political idolatry, based on a flattery of fallen human nature. In addition, although he was a fervently orthodox Catholic, Erik had great respect for Martin Luther, whom he considered a religious genius. And he was always proud of the Hapsburg opposition to anti–Semitism. One wonders whether, had there been more European Catholic aristocrats with his real nobility, the old order might have survived.

Yet I think that Erik, standing now beyond such narrow social considerations, would tell us what we ought to know already: history is not the ultimate theater of justice or salvation. There is a world elsewhere. It is that world to which Erik von Kuehnelt–Leddihn bore eloquent and faithful witness, especially as he helped us understand what happens when, in this world, it is forgotten.

While We’re At It

This is a court of law and you said you invited yourself here to take a final stand. But this trial was not an opportunity for a referendum. The law prohibiting euthanasia was specifically reviewed and clarified by the Michigan Supreme Court several years ago in a decision involving your very own cases, sir. So the charge here should come as no surprise to you. You invited yourself to the wrong forum. Well, we are a nation of laws, and we are a nation that tolerates differences of opinion because we have a civilized and a nonviolent way of resolving our conflicts that weighs the law and adheres to the law. We have the means and the methods to protest the laws with which we disagree. You can criticize the law, you can write or lecture about the law, you can speak to the media or petition the voters. But you must always stay within the limits provided by the law. You may not break the law. You may not take the law into your own hands. In point of fact, the issue of assisted suicide was addressed in this state by referendum just last November. And while the proponents of that were out campaigning, you were with Thomas Youk. And the voters of the state of Michigan said "no." And they said no two–and–a–half to one. But we are not talking about assisted suicide here. When you purposely inject another human being with what you know to be a lethal dosage of poison, that, sir, is murder. And the jury so found. Now, you’ve vilified the jury and the justice system in this case. But every member of that jury had compassion and empathy for Thomas Youk. They had a higher duty that went beyond personal sympathy and emotion. They took an oath to follow the law, not to nullify it. And I am bound by a very similar oath, sir. No one is unmindful of the controversy and emotion that exists over end–of–life issues and pain control. And I assume that the debate will continue in a calm and reasoned forum long after this trial and your activities have faded from public memory. But this trial is not about that controversy. The trial was about you, sir. It was about you and the legal system. And you have ignored and challenged the Legislature and the Supreme Court. And moreover, you’ve defied your own profession, the medical profession. You stood before this jury and you spoke of your duty as a physician. You repeatedly speak of treating patients to relieve their pain and suffering. You don’t have a license to practice medicine. . . . This trial was not about the political or moral correctness of euthanasia. It was all about you, sir. It was about lawlessness. It was about disrespect for a society that exists and flourishes because of the strength of the legal system. . . . So let’s talk just a little bit more about you specifically. You were on bond to another judge when you committed this offense, you were not licensed to practice medicine when you committed this offense and you hadn’t been licensed for eight years. And you had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did, and dare the legal system to stop you. Well, sir, consider yourself stopped.
"Then cometh the end . . ." (1 Corinthians 15:24).
The turning of the year for the Christian church is not New Year but Advent. This year Advent Sunday has a more than usual resonance, for it ushers in the last full cycle of the Christian festivals on the way towards the year 2000.
More and more the commerical cacophony of Christmas preparation has meant that the only Advent themes which have survived are those which look forward to the celebration of the birth of Christ. But there are other and starker Advent themes—the end of time, the Day of Judgment, the Christian longing for the Second Coming of Christ—a tension between the "already" and the "not yet," the urgent notes to "watch" and "wake up," and prayer that God will not delay. The Lord’s Prayer itself is an urgent Advent prayer. O come, O come Emmanuel! The great medieval antiphons of Advent with their longing, opening "O" embody the thirsting of all being for God’s fulfillment and deliverance, what St. Paul called the "groaning and travailing" of creation. There is a longing for an End that makes sense of it all.
Human beings are made for ends. Only at the end of lives can obituaries be written, and the whole life seen in some kind of perspective. "It sufficeth," said Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, "that the day will end and then the end is known." And when the End is known there is a judgment on what life is about, and what it is to be human.
Unlike the wheel of life of some Eastern traditions, the linear sense of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures gives time a significance and history a meaning.
The very first verse of Genesis speaks of a beginning, a shaping moment of creation. The Bible ends with a vision of a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. At the center of that new creation is set the lamb of sacrifice. There at the heart of God’s life is the face of Christ in whose life Christians believe God emptied Himself, identifying completely with His creation, redeeming all time, so that every human life might find there a grace which gives meaning and purpose.
When the Christian Church speaks in language of Messianic expectation of the Christ who will come again in glory, the faith proclaimed is not primarily concerned with describing a descent of Christ from Heaven like an astronaut returning to Earth after a time in space. What it affirms is that there will be a final triumph of the love made known in Christ.
That is the horizon of history and the End for which Christians long. The scarecrow king enthroned in love on the cross is the king who at the end will establish his domain of justice, love, and peace. The God who judges is the God whose love goes to the uttermost. As St. John put it, "at the end He will examine thee in love," pointing to both the criterion and the character of judgment. Advent gathers hopes and longings and focuses them on Christ, from whose self–giving love all things owe their origin, and who is Omega, the End as well as the Beginning.

Sources: Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia reviewed by Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Book Review, June 13, 1999.

While We’re At It: Edmund Morris’ Dutch reviewed by Christopher Lehmann–Haupt, New York Times, September 30, 1999. On Roper Center poll of American habits and opinions, Public Perspective, February/March 1999. On Freedom House survey on political freedom and civil liberties, Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1998. National Catholic Reporter on visiting prisons, May 7, 1999. Clarke D. Forsythe on abortion and public opinion, Christianity Today, May 24, 1999. Katherine S. Newman’s No Shame in My Game reviewed by Alan Wolfe, New Republic, May 10, 1999. On Jews at Princeton, New York Times, June 2, 1999. John Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru on Alan Wolfe, National Review’s Internet Update, May 24, 1999. On the Lord’s Prayer being recited at high school commencement in Maryland, Linda Chavez column in Chicago Tribune, June 2, 1999. Ben Bova on the status of religiously based moral arguments, USA Today, June 8, 1999. Ad for "A Sacred Celebration" at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York Blade, June 18, 1999. Editorial quoting Thomas Fleming on U.S. foreign policy, Nation, June 28, 1999. James Twitchell’s Lead Us Into Temptation reviewed by Laura Landro, Wall Street Journal, June 22, 1999. Dennis Prager on Ronald Thiemann and pornography, Prager Report, May 1, 1999. Daniel C. Maguire on the RC Church, reproductive planning, etc., report of the Religious Consultation on Reproductive Health and Ethics, May 1999. On drinking and the Methodist Church in Britain, Tablet, June 12, 1999. James Carroll on Edith Stein, New Yorker, June 7, 1999. On UN program for contraception and abortion in Kosovo, ZENIT, September 10, 1999. Statistics on abortion and crime, Economist, August 14, 1999. On latest euthanasia bill being considered in the Netherlands, Life at Risk, July/August 1999. Appointment in Rome by Richard John Neuhaus, reviewed in Houston Catholic Worker, September/October 1999. On the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibiting the painting The Holy Virgin Mary, New York Times, September 28, 1999. Robert S. Wistrich’s "The Pope, the Church, and the Jews," in Commentary, April 1999. On "First Tidings," L’Osservatore Romano, June 17, 1999. On Advent, London Sunday Times, November 29, 1998.